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Haditha case puts 'strained' Marines in spotlight

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, June 7 (Reuters) US Marines, fighting in some of the most violent territory in Iraq, often battle their own frustrations as much as the enemy in a guerrilla war against an adversary who blends easily into the local population.

Marines are suspected of killing two dozen men, women and children in the city of Haditha last November, and human rights groups have said it may qualify as a war crime.

''These guys are under tremendous strain, more strain than I can conceive of. And this strain has caused them to crack,'' said US Rep John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and retired Marine colonel.

Marines are fighting against Sunni Muslim rebels and al Qaeda militants in the vast dusty sweep of western Iraq, many now on third lengthy deployments of almost daily combat.

Reuters correspondents who have spent time with Marine units from the Syrian border, down the Euphrates river through Haditha and Falluja toward Baghdad recall the aggressive, tightly bonded mobile infantry companies taking the heaviest casualties of the war and struggling with their own frustrations.

These frustrations come from hunting an enemy who blends quickly and easily into the local population, but also stem from the way insurgents have repeatedly regrouped once the thinly stretched Marines move on to other targets in the Anbar region.

Some called it the ''Whack-A-Mole War'' last year when towns like Qaim or Haditha would be stormed, only for the rebels rapidly to reappear, like the moles in the children's game.

In Anbar the US military has unleashed the raw, lean, muscle-and-bone cutting edge of its huge, high-tech forces on its most stubborn and aggressive foes in Iraq.

Marines are facing unrelenting psychological stress in an unforgiving environment in which they encounter constant threats from roadside bombs on patrol, a hostile population and mortar attacks on their bases, said Daniel Goure, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank in Virginia.

''There is no more hellish place on earth for American forces than Anbar province,'' Goure said. ''When all is said and done -- not in casualties but in stress -- it is up there with the battle for Manila, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guadalcanal.'' ''You simply never know who to trust. Is the kid on the street a spotter for the IED crew?'' Goure added, referring to improvised explosive devices dug into roadsides by insurgents.

''There is the perception that nowhere is safe,'' said Goure, who questioned whether US troops were getting adequate training to prepare for such an environment.

The small Marine Corps, scrappy troops trained to smash into the enemy and hold territory till the heavy brigades of the Army arrive, are trying to train Iraqi forces to take control. But hard fighting persists even in the provincial capital Ramadi.

And a force trained to conquer beachheads is not guaranteed to win local hearts and minds. The dispatch of a reserve force to Ramadi may be welcome to Marines who complained quietly last year that they were simply too few for the job.

MORE REUTERS SHB BD1633

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